I’ve just read Joost Zwagerman’s entertaining book Duel, in which a subversive young artist substitutes her copy of a famous painting for the original in a museum. It fools the gallery’s director. Visitors don’t notice any difference. None but the gallery’s conservator can tell the real painting from the fake.
It got me thinking…
While we’re travelling, we spend a lot of money, time and effort visiting great art museums to see famous paintings. Even if we have little interest in art when we’re home, we feel that in Paris, Amsterdam or New York we ought grab the chance to see ‘real’ Rembrandts, Picassos or van Goghs.
Having forked out our hard-earned cash for our entry tickets, we expect to see real Da Vincis, original Renoirs and 100% genuine Monets. We marvel at the technical artistry, are moved by their beauty and feel we are in the presence of greatness. Would we be half so excited if we knew we were looking at fakes?
Suppose the Rijksmuseum announced that because their Rembrandts and Vermeers were in danger of deteriorating, they all had to go into climate-controlled storage, and meanwhile they would be replaced on the museum walls by reproductions. We can assume the copies will be so good that an expert would need a microscope and a chemistry set to tell the difference. Would we still queue up to see them?
Or what if the Louvre fessed up that the Mona Lisa had been in a vault since 1963 and visitors had been paying to shuffle past a poster ever since? Would we feel ripped off?
Suppose the MoMA offered to make numerous excellent copies of each its greatest treasures, then send them off as travelling exhibitions. It would save a fortune in insurance costs and everybody could enjoy them at an affordable price. Would anybody be interested?
A few years ago Mrs T and I went to an exhibition in Brussels of work by the Breughels, Elder and Younger. Pieter Breughel the Younger set up a studio and employed artists to produce reproductions of his father’s work. There was nothing fraudulent about this. In those days when travel was difficult it was the only way to have the paintings reach a wider audience. The reproductions were presented as copies and sold for much less than the originals. But in a number of cases we found the reproductions technically superior, sharper and more aesthetically pleasing. We were just as happy with the ‘phoney’ versions as with the originals.
So why are we so obsessed with seeing the real thing? Because we want to know that when we peer closely at an individual brush stroke that we are seeing the exact moment that Vermeer painted the pearl earring. We’ve heard of Vermeer; the name of an imitator means nothing to us. And we can’t help speculating on the astronomical sum the work would bring on the open market, and comparing it to the pittance the artist earned for painting it.
But isn’t this ridiculous? Surely a good painting is a good painting is a good painting, whoever created it. If it moves you or sparks your interest or speaks to you in a particular way, why should it matter who created it or when, or how much it last sold for? The experience is supposed to be about the artist communicating his or her idea of what is beautiful or interesting with us the viewers. An accurate copy could probably do this just as well as the original.
Strangely, we don’t seem to mind much if sculptures or buildings are reproductions. We know that a Rodin bronze is one of a series which came out of the same mould. We’re happy to admire the rebuilding of towns like Ypres and Dusseldorf after their original buildings were bombed flat. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the original sculptures from Prague’s lovely Charles Bridge are in a vault somewhere, protected from the visitors and the vandals, and those we see out there on the bridge are reproductions. Does it matter? Not to me.